The rise and fall of waist and hem

Absurd legwear trends, from bell bottoms to overalls.

By Jessen O'Brien

The greatest fashion faux pas is taking your pants too seriously. It’s time to embrace the ridiculous, and examine a couple of absurd legwear trends from the past few decades: Where they came from, what they were like at the height of their popularity, and how we interpret them today.

In the 1970s, the most absurd fashion must-have was bell-bottoms. The first mention of them dates back to 1813 naval uniforms, but in the mid-1960s they became the emblem of hippies, and by the next decade they were mainstream. Celebrities like Jimi Hendrix and the cast of the Brady Bunch donned them. The free-flowing fit was supposed to signify the hippie lifestyle, and they were worn by both men and women, which made them an equalizing garment. Women would wear bell-bottoms with a tight top, while men might pair them with a suit jacket.

Bell-bottoms are making a comeback in a less extreme incarnation. They re-emerged in the 1990s as flare jeans, with a tighter fit through the thighs and smaller bell at the bottom. They’re making another comeback, though now they’re loose through the knee with a more pronounced bell than flare jeans. They were recently featured in Derek Lam’s collections and worn by Nicole Richie.

The ’80s was a decade of dance. Mass media was exploding, and everyone was following the fashion trends of their icons more intensely than ever before. It was the era of Michael Jackson, of breakdancing and, naturally, of parachute pants. Leggings and leg warmers were “mega bulk”; spandex and bright colors were ace. The look was inspired by the 1983 movie Flashdance, about a part-time exotic dancer who wants to go to ballet school. Everyone wanted to imitate its star, Jennifer Beals, with her big, curly hair and sporty sartorial sensibility. Valley girls adopted this look—for proof, see another 1983 film, Valley Girl, in which Nicolas Cage woos a blonde valley girl who wears a pink miniskirt and matching leg warmers.

Let’s jump forward to today again: Dancewear isn’t making as strong of a comeback as bell-bottoms, but it hasn’t wholly vanished. Leggings—I’ll say it—are here to stay, and anyone who ventures into American Apparel knows the special breed of panic attack that shelf upon shelf of leg warmers can bring on. The trendiest way to pull this off today is to wear leggings, boots, and a sweater or cardigan—toned down from the original, maybe, but comfortable and chic.

The 1990s gave us another off-center legwear trend in the form of bib overalls. Overalls were first referred to as “slops” by working men in the 1700s, when they were made from a tough cloth and worn over another pair of pants. Eventually they began to sport pockets and loops for tools, and by the 1850s they were featured in denim. Rosie the Riveter donned the “slops” in the World War II era, but overalls didn’t catch on with the public until the 1990s, when hip-hop artists began wearing them with one shoulder unfastened. They were also worn belted, with the front flap folded over at the waist.

A few celebrities, like Cameron Diaz, who sported miniskirt overalls in an appearance on MTV’s TRL, won’t let their ’90s duds go. Disregarding the few exceptions, overalls are not back in. This is good news for us— the wind can really whip down that open waist! Now, for the bad news: Trends have a habit of reappearing every 20 years, so expect overalls to pop up more in the near future. What else lies on the horizon? Perhaps ugly sweater parties, now seasonal events, will become a year-round phenomenon, since they offer an outlet for obsessing over oversized, itchy fashion.

Having compiled this report, I’ll offer a few questions I think we’d be wise to ask: Which trends of our own will we loathe a decade from now? Which gam garments will we defend to our children (my money’s on you, jeggings), and which styles will they bring back as their own?